29 Mar Tracking State Reactions to the ICC’s Arrest Warrant against Vladimir Putin
On March 17, 2023, the Pre-Trial Chamber II of the International Court of Justice issued two arrest warrants against Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and his Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, for their alleged involvement in the “unlawful deportation of population (children) and that of unlawful transfer of population (children) from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation”. The announcement was made on Twitter, by Polish President Judge Piotr Hofmański, with a statement from Prosecutor Karim Khan following quickly after.
The arrest warrants, particularly that of a sitting president of a P5 member state, are, of course, momentous. It also raised a few eyebrows. Not that long ago, in September 2021, Khan himself had decided to exclude alleged US war crimes in Afghanistan from his investigations, claiming he was “cognizant of the limited resources available to [his] Office”. One P5 is investigated, the other one is not.
The arrests warrants prompted quick reactions from several states, both in support and against it. In this post, I list and analyse all of these reactions as a way to find patterns and trends that help clarify how the international community feels about them. Are they seen as an example of international justice in practice? Or as yet another example of the West weaponizing international institutions to isolate its geopolitical rivals?
The first thing that is worth noting is that, in the case of the arrest warrants, not that many states have issued statements or even commented on them. When I tracked reactions to Russia’s initial aggression against Ukraine, a year ago, only 30 states out of 197, remained silent (15.23%). In the case of the arrest warrants, in turn, only 43 states, out of the same 197, said anything at all (21.82%). Of course, one may argue, this may be because my tracking of reactions to the invasion of Ukraine included statements made before the UN General Assembly and UN Security Council, but even excluding those, a total of 74 states issued statements at the ministerial or head of government level – almost double the amount than for the ICC arrest warrants.
In fact, some states that would normally issue quick condemnatory statements – traditional and vociferous Russian allies, like Venezuela, Syria, Nicaragua, and even Iran – have remained uncharacteristically silent. In other cases, states have issued statements that address the war in Ukraine, but specifically avoid discussing the ICC warrants, such as the statements by Guatemala, Chile and Brazil during the 2023 Ibero-American Summit, held a week after the initial warrants were issued.
Chile, it should be added, is the only Latin American state to have come out in support of the warrants. Predictably, Cuba has been openly critical, describing the arrest warrant a “lacking legal, binding impact on Russia”. The only other Latin American state to address the warrants, Brazil, has had a cautious approach. Atypically for a usually active foreign service, Itamaraty issued no formal statements on the arrest warrants. Rather, Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira addressed the issue in a Portuguese-language interview with Brazilian magazine Metrópoles. Minister Vieira’s comments have been reported in various ways, with some seeing them as supportive of the ICC and others (myself included) as undecided. Given its relevance, I will quote him in full. Vieira said (my translation):
“This is an issue that has to be examined in light of the established process. I personally have no knowledge of it and have not seen it. Brazil is a party to the ICC and we respect and follow it. Not every country is part of the ICC so it does not have total/global reach – it is limited. We need to understand its terms better, we do not have a fixed position on this. Putin’s presence in any member country can lead to complications, I have no doubt”.
Several outlets have singled out the section where Vieira says Brazil “respects and follows” the ICC as evidence that Brazil would, if given the chance, arrest Putin. I disagree. That line has to be read in the broader context of a relatively evasive and uncomfortable answer. Vieira gave no indication that Brazil thought the warrants were the right thing to do or even a good idea. He described Putin’s presence in a member state as a “complication”, giving no hints that there would be a legal obligation to arrest him. On the contrary, Vieira’s key statement was that he had not read the warrants, had to study them more and had “no fixed position” with regards to them.
Vieira’s evasiveness is, in my opinion, consistent with Brazil’s overall position with regards to the war: non-alligned non-indifference; Brazil will condemn Russia’s aggression, but will also try really hard not to be seen as acting in tandem with the West or against its BRICS partners. Given that of the 35 states that have issued favourable statements, 30 are either NATO or EU members (and Taiwan and New Zealand are close US allies), it is conceivable that Brazil is unable to support the warrants without feeling like it is taking sides for the West. At the same time, coming out in stark criticism of the warrant would go against Brazil’s international obligations – compliance with international law being one of the key tenets of Brazilian foreign policy. Hence, it chooses a more eclectic, if not more flexible, approach.
Like Brazil, South Africa’s position on the warrants has been a cautious one. The first statement, by President Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, on March 19, was rather restrained, avoiding taking a specific position on the warrants. The spokesperson “noted” reports on the warrants and stated South Africa was “cognisant of [its] obligations” but that it would “remain engaged with various relevant stakeholders”, particularly with regards to whether Putin would be invited to the upcoming BRICS Summit in South Africa. Three days later, South Africa’s Minister of International Relations, Dr. Naledi Pandor, stated the cabinet was studying the warrants to determine the way forward. Almost a week after the warrants had been issued, South Africa remained undecided.
This changed a day later, in March 23, when Minister Pandor complained about “the issue of double standards in global affairs”, adding that “it seems if you are powerful and enjoy a particular status in the global community, you escape”. Ultimately, South Africa has decided to wait until they have a legal opinion on the issue before deciding whether to extend an invitation to Putin or not. Interestingly, therefore, South Africa is critical of the warrants, but on account of their politics, not because they are sceptical about their legality.
Other BRICS have been more categorical. India, for one, has chosen to remain absolutely silent. China, instead, warned the ICC against having double standards and politicising international justice, while Russia has clearly stated that the ICC’s warrants are “legally null and void”.
One particular case worth mentioning is that of Hungary – the only member of NATO and the EU to come out squarely against the warrants. According to Gergely Gulyas, Chief of Staff of the Hungarian government, “the ICC’s statute has not been promulgated in Hungary” and therefore Hungary “cannot arrest the Russian President”.
All in all, in my opinion, state reactions to the arrest warrants invite us to ponder, mainly, about two things: firstly, the fact that support for them comes almost exclusively from Western-aligned states (NATO, EU, Liechtenstein, New Zealand, Ukraine, Taiwan). The only exception being Chile’s left-wing and progressive government, led by a Millennial President, arguably less influenced by Cold War dynamics than his other Latin American peers, who have chosen to remain silent. Secondly, the fact that, while most of the Global South has remained silent, the opinion of the BRICS has, arguably, generated more interest in international and academic circles than the reactions of most Western states.
There will surely be a lot more to discuss about these arrests warrants as time goes by. For the moment, and in order to facilitate this discussion, I am uploading, along with this post, two documents: the first one is an infographic, which you may already have seen going around Twitter, that visibilises this information. The second is a chart, containing links to all the statements that have been issued. I will continue to update them as time goes by if more relevant statements are published. I sincerely hope they are a useful tool for researchers and policy makers.
To download the chart, please click here.